Our annual pre-draft series continues with a look at one of the nation’s most publicized characters in the draft.
For someone who didn’t play a single snap of college football in 2012, Tyrann Mathieu is receiving a great deal of attention leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft.
The former LSU cornerback, one of five Heisman Trophy finalists in 2011 who was then kicked off the football team months later for off the field transgressions, is garnering plenty of pre-draft buzz.
Blame it on the “Honey Badger.”
The aforementioned phrase was a moniker applied to the play-making defensive back who led the Tigers with 70 tackles in 2011, adding a SEC-best, six forced fumbles in the same year.
Coupled with Mathieu’s penchant for breaking big runs in the return game and his bleached-blonde hair, it didn’t take long before the “Honey Badger” was born.
At 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, Mathieu showed the tenacity necessary to compete with larger competition on the perimeter. His fierce play earned the nickname that went along with an ever-popular YouTube craze that mockingly discussed the unique behavior of a carnivorous creature known for its defensive abilities.
Mathieu didn’t play football last season, yet his persona lived on.
But does the 2011 SEC title game MVP want the reputation to remain with him in the National Football League?
“I'm Tyrann right now but if the ‘Honey Badger’ sticks, it sticks,” Mathieu said recently at the NFL Scouting Combine. “But right now I'm focused on being Tyrann Mathieu.”
Nickname or not, Mathieu enters the upcoming NFL draft as one of the more intriguing prospects in the nation. Not only does he relish competing against big-body receivers, he adds value on special teams. Mathieu averaged 16.2 yards per punt return in 2011, good for second-best in the nation.”
In order to let those talents stand on their own merits, Mathieu did his best at the combine to dispel the notion he had a substance abuse problem, the culprit in his dismissal from LSU.
“My best friend right now is honesty,” Mathieu said. “I want to be as open as possible because I'm trying to rebuild people's trust and I want those guys to be able to trust me and I hold myself accountable.”
Mathieu ran a 4.50-second, 40-yard dash at the combine. He also posted a 34-inch vertical jump and stood out to many draft analysts with fluid movement in position drills and above-average ball skills.
Prior to the field workout, Mathieu made sure to impress in his 15-minute interviews with assorted clubs.
“I want them to be able to trust me,” Mathieu explained. “I hold myself accountable for everything I've done and in this past year it's been tough. At the end of the day I want them to know that I'm a football player. I want to be a great teammate and I want to be the same leader on the field that I know I can be off the field.”
Mathieu enters the draft in a competitive defensive back group that is still jockeying for first-round positioning. Perhaps Mathieu might have been considered a first-round pick if not for his off the field behavior. For now, he’ll have to do his best in the pre-draft process to move back into the cornerback mix.
Pro Day performances will help the pecking order be determined before April 25. As for Mathieu, the pre-draft experience is all about showcasing himself as a person, more so than as an athlete.
The former LSU star has been to rehab, counseling and has a sponsor.
“I'm surrounded by people who do what I want to do and that's be a professional football player,” Mathieu said. “I think the last few months have been going pretty good for me.”
The group of mentors includes a long list of LSU defensive backs with NFL experience: Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Corey Webster.
With those motivators by his side, Mathieu wants nothing more than for teams to get to know the real person, not the nickname.
“I'm not totally asking them to trust me right now,” Mathieu admitted. “What I have asked is for them to give me an opportunity to play the game. I've had a lot of time to reflect on it, especially without football. It's really given me a different outlook on life and it's just about being the right kind of person."
With that reflection, Mathieu has come to realize what exactly derailed a very promising football career.
In addition to being named the 2011 SEC Championship Game MVP for a stellar performance against Georgia where he returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown, made four solo tackles and recovered a fumble, Mathieu was selected as the Chuck Bednarik Award winner as the nation’s top defensive player.
He was also invited to the Heisman Trophy Awards as a finalist among 2012 first-round picks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Trent Richardson – the top three picks in the 2012 NFL Draft.
The following offseason is when Mathieu really got caught up in the added attention. It ultimately led to poor judgment and football being taken away.
“I think half of it is you actually start believing the hype,” the proud play-maker said. “You actually start believing the newspaper clippings and the other half is, ‘Hey, I'm young and I want to have some fun.’
“But at the end of the day I have to be a different kind of person.”
Mathieu believes his football skills are on-point with the way he finished 2011 with LSU. Now, he’s poised to prove to one of 32 NFL teams that he’ll continue that play in the professional ranks.
“I think my football skills speak for itself,” he said. “I don't think I lost a step.”